From Gigi and Bella to LA mansions and the Olympics, Mohamed Hadid is used to producing success
Mohamed Hadid is a little bit crazy. It’s true, he says it himself: “I have that in me, a little bit of crazy.”
Clad in a classic double breasted blazer and jeans, he doesn’t look the part. But perhaps you’d have to be somewhat out of your mind if your idea of coping with a real estate crash is joining an Olympics speed skiing team as a rookie.
“It was almost suicidal,” the founder of Hadid Design and Development Group says of his move in 1992.
“When I was doing real estate in the 80s, I was very much a risk taker. Some of it was ego driven, which is not a good thing for real estate, but it was the only thing I knew how to do.
“I was moving like a train without breaks. Then the market crashed and I realised I didn’t have the financial background to understand how to get out of trouble. I lost everything in 1990. But I still had me, the same person, except less egotistic.
“So I thought, if I can come out of speed skiing alive, I can come back and do anything.”
While he’s unlikely to be partaking in any life threatening sports today at 70-years-old (although he assures us he lifts weights on a daily basis to stay in shape), Hadid certainly did make a comeback.
I could compete because I was different and it worked for me
His net worth? At least $400m. His developments? Record-breaking. His name? Echoed across corners of the globe either through the glorious hotels and Hollywood mansions he’s designed, or through his ultra-famous supermodel daughters Gigi and Bella, each worth no less than $30m. And those are just two of his prodigy children. Anwar, 19, is already following in his sisters’ modelling footsteps.
Mohamed himself was a model, and we can bear witness he still knows how to strike a pose. As we have our most recent conversation at the Arabian Business photo studio in Dubai, he holds up a discussion on risk management while simultaneously shifting poses for the camera. He’s so fast that it seems the flash is struggling to keep up. Modelling clearly runs in the family. But the original Hadid prefers, more or less, to stick to business. And he’s learned his lesson.
“I know my limits now,” he says, smirking as he leans back on a bright yellow sofa while running his fingers through luscious locks of grey hair lined with streaks of white.
“Now, I’m a calculated risk taker.”
Risk control is one of the reasons the Palestinian has done few projects in the Middle East, despite having opened his first business – an export and import company – in Qatar.
While his current multi-million dollar company in the US is behind everything from the Ritz-Carlton Hotels in Washington, New York, Aspen and Houston to massive private estates in Mexico and Beverly Hills, he's done only a small number of projects in the Middle East, including the Sheraton Doha.
“I never really lived in the Arab world. I had no base there. You have to have a base. I had a lot of opportunities in Qatar and a lot of people asked me to come. Even though I did one of my first projects in Doha, I wasn’t really… they’d always look at me and talk to me in English,” he says, referring to his then-blonde hair and blue eyes resembling a Western look.
“They didn’t think I spoke Arabic. And when I went back to the US, I didn’t want to go back to the Arab world because the opportunities were there for me in Washington. I realised I could compete there. All I had to do was do something a little bit different, have a little bit more edge, a different style. I could compete because I was different and it worked for me.”
It’s my dream to build a project in Palestine. I don’t know when or where as of yet, but I’m looking for the right location and a local partner
And it worked fast, too. After a short stint in the Middle East and with enough money to start his own company, Hadid went back to Washington. Then, in just 11 years, he was competing with what he calls the “Bob Smiths” of the US.
“I went back to Washington and bought a piece of property in a very strange area, because the old boys network in Washington, their names were not Mohamed Hadid, they were mostly Bob Smith and so on.
“So I went where no one wanted to go. I knew my way around and I knew which parts of the city, which streets, are better than others. And I designed something beautiful. I was successful at that. I did a lot of real estate design and developed office buildings, hotels – that’s how it started. And it happened very quickly, actually. In 11-12 years, I did a lot.”
Most of Hadid’s work now lies in residential property, where he focuses on large homes and mansions in the California area, as well as Colorado and Mexico. But when opportunity from the Arab world knocks, Hadid answers. This time, it was the world’s largest residential building set right in the heart of Egypt.
The real estate magnate joined forces with Cairo-based property developer Memaar Al Morshedy Group to build and design 200,000 square metre ‘Skyline’ set to house the world’s largest sky garden and infinity pool. The town-like complex in Maadi, Cairo, will be built over the span of seven years, with the first phase expected to be completed in two and a half years.
But Hadid’s also found an opportunity in Casablanca, Morocco, where he’s designing a massive mixed-use project expected to feature 16,000 apartments, 3.5 million square feet of office space and several hotels.
I was moving like a train without breaks. Then the market crashed and I realised I didn’t have the financial background to understand how to get out of trouble
“I can’t give you more details," he says, “but it was done for the locals. High-end but affordable. It’s going to be beautiful.”
Now that he’s got a taste of larger projects in the Middle East, will he build more, we ask?
Not in Dubai – at least not until he finds the right partners.
“Making intelligent decisions is the reason why I was successful in DC and LA. I know my way around and I know which parts of the city, which streets are better than others. So for me to come to Dubai or anywhere around the world, there would always be someone who knew better than me,” he says.
“If you find the right people, honest people, they make good partners.”
But there’s one particular place he’s looking to build in.
“It’s my dream to build a project in Palestine. I don’t know when or where as of yet, but I’m looking for the right location and a local partner.”
Despite having left Palestine aged just one month old, Hadid carries his identity loud and proud – literally, he carries his Palestinian identity card at all times, often describing himself as “a simple man from Nazareth (Al-Nasirah).”
It has gained him ample popularity across the Arab world. At a recent on-stage interview at the Arab Conference at Harvard University, Hadid was met with standing ovations and roaring applause, with one participant yelling, “Abu Anwar,” an Arabic nickname meaning father of Anwar, and Hadid responding, “Habibi,” beloved friend.
The crowds even chanted, “Wein? Ala Ramallah,” Where are you going? To Ramallah; the traditional Palestinian song speaking about returning to the city in the West Bank.
Hadid has indeed returned to his childhood home in Nazareth, where he was “born in a room overlooking the church where Jesus was conceived.”
His family had left Palestine during The Nakba, or Catastrophe, the period between the United Nations’ vote on the partition plan and official end of the first Arab-Israeli war. Their home had been taken by a Jewish Polish family which nine months prior had been given refuge from the Nazis by the Hadids.
“It’s a sad story, but it’s a story that happened to many families,” Hadid says, now in a much more serious tone.
“My father didn’t tell me about our exodus from Palestine until later on in my life. He said, ‘I don’t want you to hate. I want you to move on with your life instead of having that pain in your heart about how you lost your home’.
“That was probably a smart idea, even though sometimes you feel you’ve been robbed out of a history lesson. But I realised it was a smart move on his part, because a lot of others kept that hate and couldn’t move forward. They always felt they can go back and get their home again. Not giving up isn’t easy, but sometimes giving up is like love. If you want to move forward, you have to let go of the thought that you’re going to go back to the person or place.”
But the return to Nazareth was painful nonetheless.
“I went back to where I was born and my uncles and cousins… We had the most amazing Palestinian food and it broke my heart, because I know the suffering and struggles they have. I’m not sure if they wish they were somewhere else, but they’re also happy they stayed where they are,” he says.
“You can feel the power and I felt I was home. It was strange, I felt home. I lay down where my mother had me and I gazed up and there was a beautiful hand-painted ceiling. It’s not the same palace we had in the past as it’s broken up into apartments so it’s not the same.”
Yet if there’s one thing that’s not in Hadid’s heart, it’s hate.
“My parents taught me one thing: it’s difficult to hate people. My father said, ‘When you look at a family in pain, you try to help them. You don’t ask what religion they follow before you help them.’ I have friends who are Jewish and I don’t look at them in a political way, I look at them as people.
“They were probably more uncomfortable with me being a Palestinian Muslim with a name Mohamed Hadid that I will never change because I love it. So sometimes they have a conflict with me. It’s not the other way around. I never felt I was uncomfortable with my identity. They were uncomfortable with my identity and that for me is fine,” he says with a shrug of the shoulders.
Given his peaceful attitude, we wonder out loud why he never joined the Palestinian Authority. “No one invited me,” he jokes.
“I’m a bad speaker… Too liberal… Now I’m not that young to start in politics…” he says.
But he certainly has an opinion on US politics, particularly on President Donald Trump, who in 2017 moved the American embassy to Jerusalem, recognising the city as the capital of Israel and striking a blow to Palestinians who consider Jerusalem as their capital. Protests in nearby Gaza against the move saw Israeli forces shoot and kill at least 58 Palestinians and wound 1,200 others.
“I don’t believe [Trump] has great knowledge of the Palestinian history and the tragedy... So he reacts on what he is fed in any recent news, unfortunately,” says Hadid.
His daughters Gigi and Bella Hadid are just as involved in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, with Bella stating in a post to her 24 million followers on social media, “I’ve been waiting to put this into perfect words but I realised there is no perfect way to speak of something so unjust. A very, very sad day. Watching the news and seeing the pain of the Palestinian people makes me cry for the many, many generations in Palestine.”
“Jerusalem is home of all religions. For this to happen, I feel, makes us take five steps back, making it harder to live in a world of peace… Where is the hope?”
Mohamed Hadid is a little too familiar with taking a step back.
“I have to work three times as hard, take three steps back in order to take one step forward,” he says of the challenges that come with being a Palestinian, Muslim and Arab.
“I must have heard it 30 times, from kids, that their parents have warned them of backlash if they say they are Palestinians. They changed their name to something else so the question isn’t asked, ‘Where are you originally from?’”
Is it still challenging for him, even now that he’s rich and famous?
“Even now,” he says. “But once you have momentum, they can’t stop you.”
Try as they may, Hadid’s critics are unlikely to hinder his success. Besides the fact that he’s already made an unforgettable name for himself, he’s also “too young to retire. I still have much to learn. I love to learn.”
Perhaps the world can learn a lesson or two from Mohamed Hadid.